It’s Cool to be Kind—Understanding Bullies and Victims

In yesterday’s New York Times there was a piece on bullying ( http://tiny.cc/m3kHd) that is well worth every “parent” (i.e. anyone who cares about cacti and animalskids) reading.  In addition to the excellent points made in the article, I offer a few other points to consider in the service of more compassionately parenting all of our children.

If we were to try to think more deeply about bullies and bullying, we might like to differentiate behavior from character.  When we strive for a zero tolerance for bullying, that doesn’t mean that we want to figure out who the bullies are and get rid of them, but rather that we want to deepen our understanding of why and when bullying behavior occurs and help facilitate kindness and compassion. 

If you tell a child that they are a bully, you reinforce his or her shame—the notion that he or she is a bad kid, rather than that their behavior, when bullying, is unacceptable.  When a child feels shame, they are prone to rage and further isolation when confronted with their “badness,” feeling that they simply bad to the bone and will aggress until a force bigger than them can stop them.  This sets up a prison-mentality that has lead to a lot of people in prison with no end in sight to anti-social behavior.

When I was a group home therapist, we would inevitably have one kid in the group home who seemed like the problem, a kid who brought everybody else down.  They would violate the rules and we would send them to a place with even more restrictions (viewing this as their need for additional “containment”), yet as soon as they were gone and we carefully attempted to pick a “good kid” to replace them, one of the formerly “good kids” would devolve into the black sheep of the house.  This pattern happened with reliable consistency and lead me to think about Lord of the Flies.

My conclusion was that we were missing the true heart of our darkness—our own Shadow, which is the archetypal part of the Self that we tend to deny and be unconscious about.  If there is any truth to this, then we will do much to stop bullying and cruelty in schools, and on battlefields, if we were more willing to recognize our Shadows.

As they say, “the fish rots from the head down,” and in working with various schools I have seen that if there is an ethic of bullying at the administrative levels (often unconsciously held by those in power), it results in higher levels of bullying on the playground.   Because of this, it can sometimes be difficult for parents to effectively intervene at the administrative level, where a typical school response is to reprimand the bully, who later redoubles their cruelty to the victim in retaliation for “telling.”

We can’t effectively help kids who are being bullied if we don’t change the hearts and minds of the kids who bully, as well as the zeitgeist of the group in which the bullying happens.  Many of the kids in the middle ground of those who are neither bullied nor bully others fear that if they step up to help, they will merely become the next target of the bully.

Bullying is a significant problem.  We parents must effectively lead the charge in transforming it (and not just shame and reprimand the bully who will surely exact revenge on the child who “told” on them if there is no deeper understanding, no coping strategies offered the bully to support their growth and healing).  This means that we parents and educators must think through our interventions and architect successful long-term solutions.  We must also become more aware of our own Shadow aspects (i.e. our own inner, or overt, bully selves) and we must also become more aware of our inner victim aspects (which can lead to passive-aggressive behaviors in which we unconsciously provoke others to act out our inner bully).  We also need to work through the wounds of our past so that we are parenting our kids, and not the ghosts of our pasts.

We can also deepen our compassion for the bully, who typically feels bad about himself or herself and suffers from low self-esteem (or, more accurately, lack of a solid self—see earlier post on “The Bowl and the Colander”).  It is in our collective interest to identify at-risk kids and put some extra effort into parenting them rather than merely labeling them or expelling them from schools (where they may escalate their negative behaviors until the criminal justice system potentially becomes their de-facto parent).

The bully and the victim represent, in some sense, a yin-yang relationship.  While low self-esteem and relatively high levels of insensitivity and lack of empathy leave a potential bully needing to discharge frustration, a child who cannot read social cues, and who is typically highly sensitive, may be terrified, but also fascinated, by the bully who matches their own inhibition with a mirror lack of inhibition.

The late bloomer brainy kid with poor motor skills may see themselves as social misfits and nerds and may unconsciously feel angry and powerless, much as the bully may secretly feel powerless as a result of learning differences, or the shame of being tormented in a violent or drug abusing household, perhaps ignored or victimized by their authority figures.  Also, the cynical attorney or ruthless business leader as parent can vibe out just as much bully energy to his or her children as might the more stereotypical image of the brute.

Back on the playground, the victim and the bully are like mirrors of a secret other, where the bully aggresses against his or her own “weak” self, while the bullied child unconsciously expresses his or her rage and cruelty through their unconscious identification with the bully (even if it results in injury to themselves).  This is a school-yard version of sadomasochism, where two halves make a whole that make neither feel complete, but only completely unhappy.

The New York Times piece also touches on rumors and social exclusion, more typically the way that girls bully, and just as toxic.  Again and again in my clinical work with kids I have seen that the “mean girl” inevitably feels badly about herself.  The trick is in helping the other children truly understand this, and in creating an “it’s cool to be kind” ethic amongst kids as a group.

The paradigm shift we need in education is in valuing the group, and helping children belong to the group, across a diversity of social and learning styles.  When we over-emphasize “success” as raw achievement, or “popularity” we unwittingly condone cruelty (many bullies are rated as “poplar” by other kids, and also as “not-liked”—this distinction might help us teach kids that it’s cooler to be kind than infamous).  Imagine if in pre-school the teacher were to say, “In a minute I’m going to say ‘go’ and whoever gets to the cookies first will have them and the rest will just have to deal with it.”  Yet by the time we get to elementary school, this is the very vibe that kids carry out to the yard with them; and with teachers so often feeling unsupported, their frustration may trickle down to the kids, or at least leave some teachers depleted and disempowered to stop these age-old cyclic patterns of cruelty.

While schools can do things like create peer councils to moderate conflict and set the tone that it is cool to be kind, we parents can redouble efforts to monitor, understand, and facilitate self-esteem in all the kids with whom we interact.

Let’s dedicate today to all kids who are bullied, and to all parents who still carry the scars of having been bullied; but also let’s dedicate today to those kids and parent who do (or did) bully others.  Let’s make our sangha kind.

Namaste, Bruce

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One Response to “It’s Cool to be Kind—Understanding Bullies and Victims”

  1. Laurie Says:

    This one is huge. Watching my 10 year old son navigate through the waters of alphaness….very tough. He doesn’t roll over yet he does not push, shoot or strike. He needs to establish himself as much as the big “dogs”. He will, I’m watching and so grateful this blog is here.

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